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Does a James Beard Award Drive Traffic Back to the Restaurant?

Chefs and restaurateurs weigh in on the economic impact

Ha Gyung Lee aka NAKI

On Monday night, during an awards ceremony in Chicago, the James Beard Foundation awarded 35 restaurants and individuals medals, catapulting them — at least in the minds of their peers, the media, and diners who keep up with restaurant awards — to the top of their game. The chefs who won will continue to be recognized by local and national press for years to come. Their restaurants will likely grace other lists of superlatives like best and essential and hot. But will these restaurants be busy? Will that shiny new medal get butts in seats?

According to most chefs and restaurateurs queried by Eater, the short answer is: maybe. Naomi Pomeroy, who was nominated twice for Best Chef: Northwest before she won in 2014, recalls that “business picked up a lot the summer after the award.”

Others, like Philadelphia-based Eli Kulp of High Street Hospitality Group, are less sure. “While I wouldn’t say there is a direct increase in business, it does help long term because the Beard Awards are most obviously a designation of consistent high quality,” says Kulp, who has been nominated for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic. But he notes: “I think certain awards — Regional Chef, Outstanding Chef, or Restaurant — have the potential for greater impact on business.”

That uncertainty surrounding the Beards’s business influence may come as a surprise. The James Beard Awards are one of the most widely followed, well-respected annual industry awards in the U.S., but almost every chef and restaurateur we spoke to said a nomination had no impact on their business, and a win sometimes resulted in a small initial uptick in reservation requests. The effect on business over time, though challenging to assess, was nominal at best.

Precise data on what influences a restaurant’s business is difficult to gather, as most do not share sales information. But according to Tiffany Fox, senior director of global corporate communications for OpenTable, in-house data suggested reservations increase after the Beard Award winners are announced. Each year, the site puts up a page dedicated to the winners, with links to reserve a table. That page tends to be a top result in Google searches for James Beard Award-winning restaurants and reservations. In 2016, the day after the awards, “we saw our restaurant customers who made the list experience a spike in reservations that was approximately 200 percent above their normal 2016 booking baseline,” Fox says.

This year, New York City’s Le Coucou, a restaurant from chef Daniel Rose and restaurateur Stephen Starr, won the James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant. According to a daily monitoring of OpenTable, the restaurant booked between 200 and 300 reservations each day in the week prior to the awards ceremony. The day after Le Coucou won the Beard, according to OpenTable, over 300 tables were booked by noon local time.

According to a Le Coucou reservationist, there was a “small but noticeable” increase in reservations made by phone; a publicist confirmed that the restaurant booked more tables the day after the awards than on an average Tuesday but didn’t specify further.

Last year, Shaya in New Orleans took home that award, and according to general manager Shannon White, the restaurant saw an immediate uptick in reservations from both locals and tourists.

Regional awards also seem to have an impact. Portland, Oregon, chef Vitaly Paley was nominated for Best Chef: Northwest in 2003 and 2004, but when he won in 2005, “the game changed,” he says. “Business picks up, sales increased.” For Paley, the award drove lasting momentum into his business: After the win, a publisher reached out about a cookbook, and the award “continues to help us attract really great talent, people who want to learn, want to be a part of something serious,” Paley says.

But for others, only those qualitative benefits emerge. Nick Kokonas, co-owner of Chicago’s Alinea (the Beard’s Outstanding Restaurant winner in 2016), says his restaurants haven’t seen the same increase in sales suggested by OpenTable. (Kokonas, it should be noted, also owns and operates the reservation system Tock, an OpenTable competitor.)

Kokonas believes the James Beard Awards have a place in the overall branding of a restaurant’s success, “but it’s not one of those awards that then gets people to run to their computers to try to book a reservation instantly.” He didn’t see an increase in traffic to Tock (which hosts 200 restaurants to OpenTables 26,000) after the 2016 Beards.

Kokonas compares Alinea’s most recent Beard to other accolades earned by the restaurant and its chef Grant Achatz. When Alinea was placed at No. 6 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, a somewhat controversial list that garners international attention, “that was pretty impactful,” he says. “Being on that list has the greatest impact in terms of traffic.” A nomination or a win at the Beards, he says, is just a “different kind of PR.”

Other chefs and restaurant owners agree. Mindy Segal, owner of Mindy’s Hot Chocolate in Chicago, agrees. “It’s so nice to receive recognition from your peers and I am honored... to have been given the award for Outstanding Pastry Chef,” she says. “However, business runs as usual in my restaurant. If anything, it has made me more humble because of the national recognition that the awards helped me achieve.”

Chef Suzanne Goin and her business partner Caroline Styne are two of the most high-profile restaurant professionals in Los Angeles. They’ve each been nominated multiple times and won. But according to Matt Duggan, general manager at Lucques, Goin’s longstanding West Hollywood flagship, the restaurant has never seen an increase in reservation requests after Goin, Styne, or one of their restaurants won a James Beard Award.

Duggan is flummoxed. “This should matter. There should be a surge, a boost, a run on the market... but alas, the awards don’t have the immediate effect that nominees and even winners hope for year after year,” he says. According to Duggan, being put on a “best-of list or getting a placement in a city magazine will give you a shot in the arm. You’ll see a very direct cause and effect. When we were named No. 1 in Los Angeles magazine, the phones lit up the next day.” But the day after Goin was named Outstanding Chef, “things seem to proceed much as they were.”

Duggan posits that the difference has to do with demographics. “There are diners that want to check out the hot new thing and there are diners that want something of consistent quality,” he says. “Over time James Beard Awards generate meaningful business, validating the choice of regular clientele and encouraging your hardcore, chef-watching audience to seek out that reservation.”

That audience, whether they found out about Lucques via a review in the Los Angeles Times, an online list, or a Yelp review, is making a reservation as a “notch in the belt,” Duggan says. They want to be able to say, when the next award hits, the next list comes out, “Oh Lucques? I dined there...”

Regardless of whether or not they saw an award win as a traffic driver, every chef and restaurateur said that a nomination or win was at the very least an important acknowledgment from the restaurant community, an indication that they were doing something right. “The awards are great recognition from your peers and absolutely raises the morale of the entire team and food community,” Kulp says, noting that since Philadelphia is not included in the Michelin ratings, the Beard awards are the most prestigious national award of that type in his city.

“James Beard Awards feel emotionally different for me,” chef and restaurateur Alex Stupak says. “I love the purity of it: You got voted to win by your colleagues, by people who have won that award in the past. That makes it really special. I’m not trying to sound pessimistic about it. I don’t believe it equates to increased sales, but I don’t think it hurts one bit.”

Daniela Galarza is a senior editor at Eater. Ha Gyung Lee is a freelance illustrator.
Editor: Erin DeJesus

The Full List of James Beard Foundation Awards 2017 Winners [E]